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The Great Education Debate 40 Years On #LiminalLeadership

Prior to the 1980s, education was very much a local issue set within the context of the 1944 Education Act.  A move to comprehensive schools in the 1960s was arguably the major event.  How times have changed.  Like many people of my age, I have been honed, damaged and shaped by an era of increasingly pernicious accountability and the confused autonomy granted to us by successive governments. 

The extract above and below is taken from Liminal Leadership, released on the 19th October 2016 the day after the 40th anniversary of James Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech. It is available from John Catt Ltd or Amazon, as a paperback, or from Kindle

Credit: @SDupp

Credit: @SDupp

Thus began ‘The Great Debate’ about the nature and purpose of public education.  A small extract from the speech is below.  It signalled politicians’ entry into the education system at a level previously unseen:

“There have been one or two ripples of interest in the educational world in anticipation of this visit.  I hope the publicity will do Ruskin some good and I don’t think it will do the world of education any harm.  I must thank all those who have inundated me with advice: some helpful and others telling me less politely to keep off the grass, to watch my language and that they will be examining my speech with the care usually given by Hong Kong watchers to the China scene.  It is almost as though some people would wish that the subject matter and purpose of education should not have public attention focused on it: nor that profane hands should be allowed to touch it … I take it that no one claims exclusive rights in this field.  Public interest is strong and legitimate and will be satisfied. We spend £6bn a year on education, so there will be discussion.  But let it be rational … To the critics I would say that we must carry the teaching profession with us. They have the expertise and the professional approach. To the teachers I would say that you must satisfy the parents and industry that what you are doing meets their requirements and the needs of our children. For if the public is not convinced then the profession will be laying up trouble for itself in the future … The goals of our education, from nursery school through to adult education, are clear enough. They are to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive, place in society, and also to fit them to do a job of work.  Not one or the other but both.”

 Whilst you may not agree with every word, the speech steered a balanced path.  There is a legitimate public interest in how taxpayers’ money is spent on education and a need for politicians to “carry the teaching profession with us.”  When the speech was given, the 1944 Education Act provided for locally controlled maintained schools.  Teachers were the predominant voice on professional matters and the Secretary of State for Education was responsible for ensuring we had enough school places and sufficient teachers.

Forty years on from the Ruskin College speech, we now have: significant levels of central government involvement in the education system; a diminished voice for teachers and school leaders; the intention to remove local authority involvement in education; and a Secretary of State for Education with unprecedented powers but regrettably no longer responsible for ensuring sufficient school places or teachers.

Steve Munby and Michael Fullan (2016)[1] in their think piece, Inside-out and downside-up: How leading from the middle has the power to transform education systems, look at why politicians have behaved a certain way over the last few decades, in countries across the globe.

Why might this be so common? As Michael has written elsewhere, “You might ask why politicians endorse solutions that don’t work. The answer is not complicated: because they can legislate them; because they are in a hurry; because the remedies can be made to appeal superficially to the public; because (and unkindly on our part) some of them really don’t care about the public education system, preferring that education be taken over by the private sector; and (more kindly) because they do not know what else to do.”

[1]Munby & Fullan (2016)

As politicians become more and more frustrated by the lack of impact of their efforts, external accountability is ramped up.  Certain curriculum approaches are championed, pet projects are cherry picked from around the world with promises of great impact, irrespective of the evidence, and magazine loads of silver bullets are fired in the aspiration for a World Class Education system.

 We all know what happens next. The end result is exhausted, discouraged teachers and leaders, stretched on the rack of contract accountability but not given the capacity – the time, resources or support – to make any of this really work.  Policymakers are left scratching their heads, wondering why change is so resistant to their will.  Students – the intended beneficiaries of these drivers – don’t really see what the fuss was about.

[1]Munby & Fullan (2016)

 …. Jumping to the end of the chapter ….

“We are, at the time I write this, in need of a revolution in education.  This is a strong statement and I don’t use it lightly.”

[3]Kidd (2014)

As such, school leaders need to build the cultural bridges on which a better future, for our pupils and teachers, can be based.  We must be focused, informed and ethical in all we do.

 Click me to order

Alternatively, the book may be ordered from Amazon.  It’s released on the 19th October 2016.


[1] Munby, S & Fullan, M (2016) Inside-out and downside-up: How leading from the middle has the power to transform education systems

[3]Kidd, D. (2014) Teaching: notes from the front line, Carmarthen: Independent Thinking Press



One thought on “The Great Education Debate 40 Years On #LiminalLeadership

  1. Kidd’s idea of a “revolution” in teaching would worry me, we keep having minor revolutions which throw is off kilter so a major one would just create unmitigated angst. There are a number of teachers who will rise above the accountability trap and will say “the only thing that matters is the young person in front of me, the ultimate VIP, and what they need, so if I enable them to succeed in many areas, but they drop a grade in my subject because they struggle with it, that’s how it is; on paper you may not look like a failing teacher but as a human being you stand victorious on that particular battlefield!

    Posted by stuart robathan | October 16, 2016, 7:31 am

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